Both an exotic pet and a "pocket" pet, Sugar gliders are popular in the U.S. and around the world, though some states and countries don't allow them to be kept domestically. These soft, small marsupials are super-cute, but they are also prone to myriad diseases.
By staying proactive through exotic pet research and by forming a relationship with an exotic veterinary team, you can help keep your sugar glider healthier and happier for longer. Take your glider in for annual check-ups, as small pets like sugar gliders often hide their illness until they are very sick. Early detection of a disease could be a lifesaver for your pet.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Also referred to as nutritional osteodystrophy, metabolic bone disease is more commonly seen in pet reptiles, but it is also a major problem in pet sugar gliders. Both reptiles and sugar gliders need calcium in their diets in order to maintain proper bone strength. When sugar gliders do not get enough calcium and vitamin D3 in their food, their bones become soft due to the imbalance of vitamins and minerals in their tiny little bodily systems. Then come the secondary problems, including heart disease, seizures, pneumonia, and of course broken bones.
Thankfully, this disease can be diagnosed by your exotics vet, who can check the bone density and provide a nutritional consultation. The condition can usually be reversed with calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation and diet correction. Medications to treat secondary problems may also be prescribed. To avoid broken bones, cage rest is recommended for all sugar gliders with a metabolic bone disease until the bone density has improved.
Sugar Glider Ick
In aquariums, ich, ick, or white spot disease is well-known and much-feared. Ick in sugar gliders, though, is a little different than the aquatic version. Although both versions are due to tiny parasites called protozoans, sugar glider ick is caused by the Simplicomonas protozoan, while the fish version is caused by the Ichthyophthirius variety. Simplicomonas is found in the intestinal tract of sugar gliders and, in combination with stress, causes diarrhea and poor coat quality.
Although there's not much known about sugar glider ick, aggressive treatment should be delivered by an exotics vet as soon as it's suspected. Malnourishment and dehydration occur quickly in these tiny animals, so any diarrhea or change in the coat quality of your sugar glider should not be ignored. Ick is diagnosed with a fecal sample to look for the microscopic parasites or by sending it out to a laboratory for special testing.
Preventing this disease is difficult because it's not understood where sugar gliders pick up the protozoan, and it is very contagious between sugar gliders. To avoid contaminating another sugar glider, wash your hands before and after handling an animal to lessen the likelihood of transmitting the disease.
Sugar gliders are susceptible to many different kinds of bacterial skin infections, but Mycobacterium is the most common. Infections can be secondary to other diseases, such as self-mutilation, or they can be acquired from dirty enclosures, fecal matter buildup, substrate/bedding harboring bacteria, or fungal spores. For example, corn cob bedding is a major culprit of fungal infections. Debris can easily get stuck in a sugar glider's soft coat, but they often bathe themselves or other members of their colony to help keep it clean.
Make sure your sugar glider's enclosure is clean, bedding is washed, and their food and water are changed daily to prevent any type of skin infection. Antibiotics or antifungals prescribed by your exotics vet may be given to help treat the infection. If your sugar glider is starting to look unkempt or smell, consider misting them with warm water or using a grooming wipe meant for pets to help them bathe.
Some people forget about mental health when it comes to diseases, but sugar gliders are affected by a mental disease just like many people. Self-mutilation is usually caused by extreme stress in pet sugar gliders and can cause tremendous damage, not only cosmetically but also through open wounds and infections. Self-mutilation may start as simply as over-grooming or excessive licking to pulling out hair and then eventually turn into chewing skin off to create open wounds. These wounds can get infected and, if left untreated, can cause your sugar glider to become septic and even die.
Self-mutilation is a serious mental disease, but it can be prevented by offering an appropriate home with as little stress as possible to your sugar glider. Gliders live in large colonies of other gliders in the wild, which offer sources for communication, bonding, foraging, sexual activity, and other activities. Pet sugar gliders should always be housed with at least one other glider, if not a group of them, to help limit the likelihood of behavioral problems, stress, and development of diseases.
Sugar gliders love to jump and glide from place to place, but a home doesn't always allow safe places for this behavior to be fully exercised. Curtain rods are popular places for sugar gliders to perch and survey their world if they are given free run of a room, but the places they choose to glide to and land aren't always forgiving on their little bones.
Fractures, or broken bones, occur far too often in pet sugar gliders because of their curious behavior and natural instincts to glide. Create a safe place for your glider to explore and glide to prevent bone fractures but still allows them to play and jump. Soft landing areas like pillows, blankets, and tumbling mats are great options for rooms that have already been sugar glider-proofed for exploration. Additionally, be aware of what is available in that room for them to climb onto and jump off of. Inside your sugar glider's cage make sure there are no items that your pet can get their leg stuck in.